Consider minimalism this holiday season


Toni Pantone

By Ellen Barczak, Columnist

The holiday season is upon us, and with that, a nationwide shopping spree. Before you buy your loved ones a bunch of junk they don’t need, take a moment to consider the impact your gift-giving could have on the planet.

When I was in sixth grade, a friend of mine asked me, “How many shirts do you own?” Weird question, right? Of course, my immediate response was, “Why?”

“Well,” she replied. “I have over 100.”

Twelve-year-old Ellen was confused, and frankly, a little annoyed. Why does anyone care how many shirts I own? Is this obscure statistic relevant to one’s social standing? Do I not have enough shirts?

I haven’t ever forgotten this incident. Though I am still upset by this question, today it bothers me for a different reason than it did initially —  it exposes the flaw of our throwaway culture. However many shirts I had is what mattered to a girl in junior high figuring out the social hierarchy. Before I was even aware of it, I was being judged by the material items I had collected.

I don’t fault my friend for asking me such a bizarre question; I fault the society that raised her to ask it. We all learn as young children that more is always better: more toys, more friends, more clothes. You get the idea. We are brainwashed by advertisements on television, in magazines and in stores.

Advertisements send us subliminal messages which define our thought processes, our wishes and our happiness, telling us what we “need” before we know ourselves. We are taught that, to be socially acceptable, we need more stuff.

We are told that to be happy, we need as much of everything as we can attain. Later, however, we’re taught that when we don’t want something anymore, we can and should throw it away.

Have you ever realized that a plastic spoon can be washed and used again? Or have you considered the resources which went into making that spoon? If you hadn’t, I would not fault you, for we were all raised in the same unsustainable society.

I would not describe myself as a minimalist or someone who consciously chooses to live with less. I love to travel, I love new clothes and I order plenty of products from Amazon. However, I have felt increasingly guilty over the years toward my own participation in a culture which values material goods so highly.

I used to throw things away without giving them a second thought. Recently, however, as I have thrown away the plastic bag from an online clothing purchase, I wondered: What will happen to this bag? Didn’t petroleum go into making it? Was its marginal benefit to me equal to the marginal cost it took to make it? (Can you tell I’m an economics major?)

I hope these questions I ask spur the beginning of a change in the way I live my life. Someday, we will all likely be forced to change our lifestyles in some way or another out of necessity; our climate is undoubtedly changing.

The way I look at it is we have two options: either wait until the earth is so polluted and depleted of resources that we must alter our choices, or make small but conscious changes in our behavior today to slowly, hopefully, stop the pollution of the environment.

We don’t all need to become monks to have a lasting effect on Earth, though. Changing our mindset starts with the small stuff. For example, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in America is wasted, much of it due to people blindly disposing of items that have passed its “best by” or “sell by” date.

As alarming as that statistic is, when I looked at the behavior of my friends and family, it seemed rather realistic. Nearly everyone has, at least once, taken a look at an expiration date and thrown away the item without pausing to actually evaluate the quality of the food.

In 2007, when working in a food pantry, I remember the coordinators telling me that canned fruits and vegetables had no expiration dates because they never expired. Now, go into your pantry and check for a date. Why is the label there today when it wasn’t necessary only a few years ago?

Why do so many think it makes sense to dispose of perfectly good items?

The food wasted in our country is just one example of the broad and severe obsession we have with throwing things away. So, I want to ask one task of each of you. Though it may not be easy or convenient, I want you all to take one choice you make, one product you use or one attitude you hold in your life you know is not responsible to the planet and change it.

If you are unwilling to embark on this quest, I ask you do something even smaller: Be conscious in your daily actions and of what you use, what you throw away and what you buy. Ask yourself, does this action benefit me? Does it bring me joy? Is it responsible to myself, my friends, my family and my posterity? Do I need it? We can all likely live with less than we have now.

For, as the saying goes, less is more.

Ellen is a sophomore in LAS.

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